Millions of trade union members could vote against the UK staying in the EU if the government waters down workers’ rights.
Leading unions at the TUC annual conference in Brighton will say on Tuesday that if David Cameron undermines employment safeguards in his renegotiation of Britain’s EU membership their members could vote no in any referendum.
Steve Turner, the TUC’s international spokesman, is to tell delegates: “We hope that Cameron’s efforts to weaken workers’ rights will fail but if they do not, we are issuing a warning to the prime minister: you will lose our members’ votes to stay in the EU, by worsening workers’ rights.”
“We will be looking very closely at the timing of the referendum and at what the prime minister is trying to do. If needs be we will consider calling a one-day policy conference to specifically discuss the European issue,” he said.
A statement by the TUC general council, released before the debate due to take place on Tuesday afternoon, said that thanks to EU directives workers enjoyed a series of rights, including limits on excessive hours, rules on work-life balance and health and safety protections.
“Working people, faced with the prospect of a Europe based on insecurity at work and flexibility on employers’ terms, will have little enthusiasm to vote and be even less likely to vote to stay in the European Union,” the statement said.
“Both the prime minister and the CBIshould note that should he succeed in further undermining British workers’ rights, pressure to put TUC resources and support in the referendum behind a vote to leave the European Union will intensify dramatically.”
The GMB leader, Sir Paul Kenny, said he could not recommend his members support measures that would weaken employment rights. “This is about treating workers as first-class citizens, not third-class citizens.”
Dave Prentis, the Unison leader, said: “If these rights are taken away, how can we support a yes vote in the referendum? We would be voting for worse rights.”
John McDonnell, Labour’s new shadow chancellor, continued to keep Labour’s option on Europe open. He said the party would wait to see what Cameron’s package of negotiations entailed “and then we will take a decision then about whether or not we need to renegotiate our own package while consulting others about the sort of reforms that we want”.
“Jeremy said clearly he wants to remain in Europe, but we want see what Cameron’s package is. That is fairly reasonable. The British people want to know that as well so we will see what Cameron comes up with.
“We are not going to give Cameron a free hand on any negotiations at all. We want to see what comes up with. At the moment it is trying to get a good Europe, a Europe that serves all our interests. I think we can do that.”
Some Labour MPs now on the backbenches believe Corbyn is a full-blooded Eurosceptic, and that he is holding an ambivalent line until he can secure unity, which may be impossible to achieve until he has seen the detail of Cameron’s deal next year.
Corbyn is also aware that he needs to win back Ukip voters, though his views on immigration may present a hurdle.
An ICM poll published on Tuesday by the no campaign showed that 43% of respondents wanted the UK to stay in the EU, compared with 40% who favoured an exit. The poll also reveals that those who favour leaving the EU are more enthusiastic about their position.
Dominic Cummings, a former Conservative adviser and a strategist with Business for Britain, said: “Roughly one third of the British public is very hostile to the EU, one third is pro-EU, a fifth wants to leave but is worried about jobs and living standards, and a fifth doesn’t know [perhaps doesn’t care].
“In the 1970s, the EEC was seen as a modernising project and connected to Britain’s recovery from basket-case status. Echoes of this were still there during the euro battle of 1999-2002. This feeling seems to have died. Focus groups … suggest that the financial crisis, the Greek euro crisis, and the migrant crisis all played an important part in changing sentiment.”
This article was written by Matthew Taylor, Patrick Wintour and Rajeev Syal in Brighton, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 15th September 2015 12.52 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010